Loneliness is a Harsh Task Master, Indeed.
Here is the first item in my first book of essays, The Rejected American: A Motley Collection of Rejected Essays, Unanswered Love Letters, Ignored Job Applications, Spurned Offers of Friendship and Unpublished Letters to the Editor, published in 1999 by Morton Books:
I read a small column in New York Magazine that started a line of thought. I wrote them, but as always, they threw my letter in the nearest waste paper basket.
TO THE EDITOR:
Leslie Savan’s article on community brings to mind a statement the novelist Toni Morrison once made in regard to the break-up of solid black communities because of the promise of integration: “Will blacks now be allowed entrance to the larger white community?” she asked.
As a black man who once was married to a black, a white and a Mexican-American, and who has lived all over the United States, I discovered, much to my surprise, that Morrison had it all wrong. There is no “white community.”
Instead, what we have in America, and have had, is a profound search for community. This is reflected in our films and novels where the loner, the seeker of place and community and love and friendship, is still our most compelling character.
Morrison felt that something like the color of one’s skin was the real glue that held people together. Obviously, it is something more than that in a place like the new world.
I started thinking about that letter when once again, my mind was taken up with yet another mass shooting. And once again it was a lonely white male that couldn’t fit in.
I also couldn’t get out of my head the image of the house that the white male gunman that murdered all those people recently in Las Vegas, lived in. It was a dusty, lonely looking place out in the middle of nowhere in the Nevada desert. I have seen many houses like that all over the west. As my car, or the train, or the bus drove pass these strange, lonesome houses, I could not help but think of the persons inside, sitting alone, night after night, drinking themselves to sleep.
What were they seeking when they ended up there? Did they not know that loneliness is indeed a harsh task master?
We, as a society should start understanding how this awful sickness impacts our country, and especially impacts the males of whatever race or faith.
I for one know from firsthand what loneliness can be like, and it isn’t fun.
One more note about my letter to New York Magazine in the 90’s, the editor I was writing to was Kurt Andersen, the face on this month’s cover. Make of that what you will.
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Kurt Andersen lives in a Brooklyn brownstone, and from the window of the room he uses as an office, he has a view of late 19th century residences that have only grown spiffier with time. “Am I literally imagining that I’m living 120 years ago? No,” he says.
He’s defending himself, sort of, as an American who might harbor bits and pieces of magical thinking. He concedes that he’s played paintball wars and is superstitious enough to say, “knock on wood.”
“But,” he maintains, “I don’t think I was ever abducted by aliens.”
He doesn’t believe in alien abductions, of course. In America we all have our fantasy pursuits, but nowadays our socio-economic status and political ideology are the main determinants of where our unshakable faiths lie. And that’s part of the message Andersen delivers in his latest book, Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire, an exhaustive and provocative 440-page history of devout believers in the United States.
Andersen maintains that ever since the Puritans arrived in the 1600’s with their belief that a good Christian life was one consumed by Christianity—while further south, ships from England brought prospectors who were convinced there was gold in the land that is now Virginia—America has been a place where you can create your own truth and run with it.
God speaks to you, there’s gold in them thar hills, space aliens have landed, make America great again—whatever you fancy. John Adams observed in his time that “facts are stubborn things.” More recently, Kelly Ann Conway validated all of Donald Trump’s inconveniently-untrue claims as “alternative facts.”
And while Andersen comes down hard on the cult of Trump, he doesn’t spare the liberal urban elites who constitute his own ideological tribe.
Nevertheless, we are, today, a nation of ideological believers, and Andersen is speaking from an elevated perch on the left side of the divide. Nor am I about to challenge him, especially when he provides a highly relevant argument against the freedom to believe whatever you wish to believe; certain beliefs, like in assault weapons, are a danger to other people.
The thing about being knowledgeable, however, is that you know how much you don’t know. So, I’m sitting there talking with a celebrated journalist and author, host of the popular radio show and podcast Studio 360, a Harvard graduate, a chronicler and satirist of what makes America tick, and Andersen, who grew up in Omaha and has a self-effacing Midwestern manner, espouses the certainty that he can never be certain.
“As perfect as we think reason and rationality are, we are not perfect vessels for them,” he says. “Any kind of hubris or unshakeable faith that one is correct can be problematic.”
Reason, requiring constant self-assessment and re-examination, might seem antithetical to the magical beliefs that Andersen catalogs in Fantasyland, and to a certain extent, that is where the—let’s face it, elites—who will appreciate his book will see a dividing line between themselves and all those willfully deluded believers out there.
But consider that, as he writes, the Puritans, besides being phantasmagorical self-righteous believers, were also accomplished business owners, led by university-educated men, prolific readers and writers.
Andersen writes that if you’re part of a community of people “who hate allegorical or metaphorical interpretations of the Bible—and hate art because it could lead you to consider the Bible a book of allegory and metaphor, who love scientific scholarship; and who are personally responsible for your own daily survival in an unforgiving wilderness, aren’t you pretty much bound to become the most literal minded fantasists ever?”
Setting the ground work, perhaps, for a country where a politician can argue in the most thoughtful-sounding way for a religious interpretation of evolution and reproductive rights.
Furthermore, impossible dreams haven’t always been quixotic in America. Nor did quixotic quests originate on our shores, of course—fanatical beliefs exist around the world.
And it was the German-Swiss philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche who wrote, in The Will to Power, that perspectives determine what a person sees as truth—we don’t see facts, only interpretations. We don’t have a monopoly on the magical thinking that Andersen attributes to the foundations of our country, but he does seem to be on to something in his conviction that the U.S. is the only nation, at least in recorded history, to have been founded on a set of unshakeable beliefs and to have provided fertile breeding ground for whatever belief suits your purposes.
So, we’re talking about dreaming impossible dreams, and Andersen says he deliberately didn’t write about the magicians of Silicon Valley and the billions of dollars they’ve conjured up, because this is a book about the downside of blind faith. “Believing that you can do the improbable is not all bad, and indeed it’s been a part of why this country has been so successful in so many ways,” he says. But, pondering the Virginia gold prospectors, he says, “they self-selected to some degree, for boldness and adventure and the belief that they were going to get rich. “
The fact that eventually prospectors did discover gold—though it took a trek across the continent some two hundred years after the Virginia colonists’ arrival—only seemed to justify the myths that made America what it is today.
We’re on to the California gold rush and other larger-than-life illusions that came with the 19th century. An angel appeared before Joseph Smith, or so he claimed, and guided him to a set of ancient texts that he turned into the Book of Mormon.
It was the age of P.T. Barnum, whom Andersen calls “the founder of infotainment.” The second great infotainment founder, he says, was William Cody, aka Buffalo Bill, a genuine cowboy who turned his adventures into Wild West shows that became the template for Hollywood westerns—and, perhaps, for a myth that.....Read More
Living to Learn with Everything You Knew Was a Lie
A few weeks ago more than a hundred people holding up signs squeezed into Montreal’s Norman Bethune Square to protest the acquittal of a white farmer for killing a young native Canadian. Perhaps the organizers of the protest chose the site of Bethune’s statue because they felt a symbolic kinship with a Canadian who fought in his own way for human rights, even though long after his death his movement would later be discredited as a major violator of human rights.
Did they know Dr. Bethune was a communist who left Montreal in 1938 to enlist in the Chinese struggle against the Japanese, and that he died of septicemia while operating on wounded soldiers in Mao Zedong’s Red Army? Did they know that Bethune was turned after his death into the most revered Westerner in China—right after Marx, Engels, Lenin and Stalin—an icon commemorated by several generations of Chinese schoolchildren who were required to recite by rote Mao’s “In Memory of Norman Bethune,” from The Little Red Book—a book whose print distribution would have dwarfed that of Harry Potter if the latter had been published in the 1960s or 1970s?
Most likely the protesters chose the spot because it was meters away from an entrance to the Metro through which thousands of people pass every day, maximizing exposure for their cause. A short piece in the Montreal Gazette doesn’t elaborate.
Bethune has nearly been forgotten in Canada and perhaps now, long after the passing of Mao, he is fading from memory in China as well. But he was a lifelong obsession for the Chinese-Canadian writer Xue Yiwei, who, now 53, was among the last generation of Chinese who had to memorize Mao’s eulogy to the Canadian doctor. Bethune’s eminence still haunts the writer, years after the Cultural Revolution ran its course, after the Great Leader died, and after the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989 disabused youths of the notion that the country might see a more democratic future.
Xue, who has a degree in English literature and a doctorate in linguistics, feared official reactions to his writing would land him prison, so in 1990 he escaped by way of Hong Kong, and in a reversal of Norman Bethune’s path he eventually landed in Montreal, where he was an unknown famous writer because all of his work was available only in Chinese. That is until last year, when Dr. Bethune’s Children was published in English translation by Darryl Sterk. It had first been published in the Chinese in Taiwan in 2012 and read surreptitiously on the mainland. No publisher in China has so far dared to publish it. He returned 1997 to teach Chinese literature at Shenzhen University and in 2009 and 2010 was a visiting scholar at City University of Hong Kong, but he now considers himself a Canadian.
Xue had long wanted to write a book about the mysterious figure who had loomed so large over his life. What he had known growing up was that Dr. Bethune died in 1939 while serving with the communist 8th Route Army, and immediately after his death Mao made him a martyr, inducting him into the pantheon of spiritual avatars of Chinese Communism. Mao’s letter, titled “In Memory of Norman Bethune,” would be incorporated into the Little Red Book and become required reading for schoolchildren for succeeding generations, culminating in that of Xue and his contemporaries. At first he considered writing a biography and was given access to Bethune papers and letters in.....Read More
Stephen Fisch, once again, invites us to see the world we know in a unique way. What mesmerizes him as he freezes the moment, fills us with awe. Darting up and down, side-to-side, he is always observing. Suddenly he sees ‘that thing’ and he is captured by it. From a sunset exploding over the ocean, to a wooden staircase leading to a serene beach…whatever it is compels him to share.
We profiled his work in The Neworld Review in 2014 and again in 2015. Now in 2018, he discovers a new ’aliveness' as he evolves, adding new dimension to his latest body.....Read More
In many ways I am reviewing myself because I have one of the conversations in this book. For me, this marks the third time that one of my conversations with creative writers have ended up in this series. The other two were Conversations with Ernest Gaines, and Conversations with Albert Murray. Both books were published in the ‘90s.
John A. Williams is one of the most prolific black writers in our short history as Americans. His novel, The Man Who Cried I Am, and his provocative non-fiction book, The King God Didn’t Save, became best sellers. In addition, he was written ten other novels, seven volumes of nonfiction, a play, a book of poetry and an opera libretto. He is also one of the least known American writers.
But before I get to him, I want to say a few words about the University Press of Mississippi’s Literary Conversation series. The University Press of Mississippi was founded in 1970 and is supported by Mississippi's eight state universities.
Starting the Literary Conversation series was a stroke of sheer genius by an unknown person I was unable to identify. What I love most about what they have done is how inclusive they’ve been. Blacks, Jews, Asians, WASPS—the entire American family like Ishmael Reed, E.L. Doctorow, Maxine Hong Kingston, S.J. Perelman and Anais Nin—are all included. I also like the fact that they market their products to universities and public and private libraries all over the world.
The current Series editor is Monika Gehlawat, Associate Professor of English and Director of Graduate Studies at The University of Southern Mississippi.
Over the years, the Press has published more than 1000 titles and distributed more than 2,600,000 copies worldwide, including the Literary Conversations series. They have given the world a great showcase for American writers, and I am damn glad to know that I can walk into almost any major university and public library in the world and find a book, thanks to them, with one of my articles in it.
Who wouldn’t want to be a part of something like that?
As I read the interviews in the newest book from the Conversation Series, a few things jumped out at me. One is that Williams was an unapologetic radical in his novels. Over and over he seems to be saying that blacks should pick up the gun and wage war against whites.
One reviewer even asked him if he had ever been “accused of incitement through your writings at all?”
He answered, “Not yet, but I wish I had. I say that with much pride because I would like to feel that my writings were important enough to in many ways influence the course of not only my country’s history, my people’s history, but the world. I suppose every writer would like to be a Dostoyevsky, a Dickens, a Balzac, a Herman Melville, and to this end I feel that I failed.”
Now I can see why I title my Conversation, John A. Williams: Agent Provocateur. Another thing I noticed rereading the essay I wrote as an undergraduate at NYU and published in my first magazine, the now historic Arts and Letters magazine, Black Creation, and many of the other conversations in.....Read More
I was a bird in the hand of God.
I was two in the bush,
the yin to my own yang, yang to yin,
drinking gin on the porch at midnight,
or otherwise drinking tea—you see
how it is-Bach on Tuesdays—Thursdays
acid rock, tie-dyed t-shirts and jeans.
Mornings I fed the needy and blessed
their souls with sticky kisses.
I sang to them and lotioned their feet
with lilac cream and peppermint oil,
humbled by their poverty, inspired
by the way they got out of bed
without cigarettes or coffee.
Afternoons I cursed their lazy
asses and stepped over them
in the streets on my way to the pub
seeking a little warmth or a quiet corner
in which to ponder the.....Read More
Around the world, many young scribblers preparing to enter the world of international reportage pay tribute to the provocative Italian journalist Oriana Fallaci, the truth-teller who wrote political commentary, novels, war dispatches, and ambush celebrity interviews. She did it all.
In this new biography on Fallaci, journalist Cristina De Stafano attempts to capture the passion, versatility, and ambition of the writer in this very brief volume. Fallaci deserved better with such a long, honored literary career, but this is the only authorized view of her that we have for now.
“La Fallaci,” as she was called by her peers, was born in Florence, Italy, in 1929 to modest beginnings. She was the eldest of three sisters. Her father made cabinets and was zealous about opposing the rise of the fascist movement. He joined the resistance when Il Duce teamed with the Fuhrer in a non-aggression pact to conquer all Europe. His daughter, too young to be stopped by the black-shirted fascists, carried messages for the rebels and often grenades amid baskets of produce.
“I live on tragedy,” Fallaci once said to a reporter in 1981. “Tragedy is in everything I say and write. My moral and political education was completed by the time I was 10 or 11, when I accompanied my father to small villages where he was fighting Nazi fascism. When they tortured my father, he never screamed, he laughed. Laughing, he said, was the same thing as crying.”
During the war, her father hid two British soldiers, who had escaped from a POW camp. Fallaci kept an old letter from one of them, thanking the patriarch for what he did. The war left a lasting impression on her as she saw Florence reduced to rubble with no water or power from the Allied bombing. These images would imprint her view of war for the rest of her life.
Other than courage, Fallaci showed a fascination with the written word, reading every chance she got. Her first role model was Jack London, whose style, imagination, and intellect she admired. When she announced her intention to write, her parents opposed the idea. Her mother, who thought was brilliant, even slammed her notion: “A writer! Do you know how many books you would have to publish to make a living?”
Still, nothing eased her obsession with writing. “I sat by the type writer for the first time and fell in love with the words that emerged like drops, one by one, and remained on the white sheet of paper,” she said. “Every drop became something that if spoken would have flown away, but on sheets as words, became solidified, whether they were good or bad.”
Bowing to family pressure, Fallaci compromised with a choice to go to medical school. Her teachers thought the girl to be very serious, disciplined, introverted, and driven to be the best. At 16, she conned the editor of a newspaper to give her a try-out. Soon she began covering police and hospital topics, then graduating to work as a regular columnist for Il Mattino, covering the evening shift. She was known to the staff as “the Kid.”
Even her fellow staffers marveled at her enormous talent. They couldn’t believe these sophisticated articles were being produced by a girl barely out of high school. In time, she went to work as a writer for Epoca, a new weekly in Milan. For the first time, she was allowed to write about politics, a topic reserved for males, and she thrived in the job. Although the post lasted for less than a year, she got the bug to do more serious subjects, especially politics.
However, this was not the time. In 1954, she left Florence with one suitcase, bound for Rome. A colleague told her that she would have more opportunities to her print work, but this is “the start of the Hungry Years,” where she survived on bread and crackers. There were not many female journalists.....Read More
Desperate for something interesting to read, I was pursuing the shelves of a well-known bookstore in Pasadena when my eyes fell upon a book called The Lost City of the Monkey God. With a title like that at first I thought this must be adventure fiction like Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, but this proved not the case, as it is in fact a true story about finding a lost civilization in the mountainous jungles of Honduras, a civilization whose remains were so covered by overgrown jungle vegetation that it had remained untouched for the past five hundred years!
Imagine! A civilization rivalling the Mayans in terms of sophistication unknown to civilization until the modern technology helped uncover it! This is the true story of the brave men and women who ventured into Mousquitia to unearth the biggest archeological find of the 21st Century, as admirably told by Doug Preston.
Mr. Preston has worked as a writer and editor for the American Museum of Natural History and taught writing at Princeton University. He has written extensively including contributing to The New Yorker, Natural History, National Geographic, the Smithsonian, and The Atlantic.<
In 2012 Preston joined a team of scientists on their quest to find the White City, climbing aboard a rickety plane whose historic flight would change everything. Using a space-age technology called LIDAR they were able to map the terrain under the dense jungle canopy that revealed the remains of a lost civilization. <
Actually, they discovered several sites. In order to explore them, they—the team of scientists, journalists and some soldiers from the Honduran army—were required to fly helicopters in, drop men with machetes to clear the forest before they could build camp. Once they had done this the first team stayed in the area for three weeks and reported their finding to the scientific community.<
During this time Preston slept in a hammock strung across two trees. He was bothered, as the rest of the team were, by bug bites during the night. When they returned to their headquarters along the coast of Honduras, they congratulated themselves because of having survived the wiles of the primitive jungle no worse for wear. They spoke too soon
The archeologists involved with the expedition were able to determine that the people who lived in Mousquitia had vanished about five hundred years ago, so the question was, what had caused them to disappear?
Let me remind the reader that five hundred years ago at the end of the 15th Century, beginning in 1492, Columbus discovered the New World. In October of 1493, he set sail on his second voyage to .....Read More
You have to be quick on your feet, and for Brian and me, even at fourteen we were ready to jump. A week before we were caught in Wolfe’s Sporting Goods, or I was caught, we were standing in the driveway of Brian’s house and a police squad car pulled up.
“Know anything about a bicycle that went missing down the street?” he said.
“No sir.” Brian looked at me, and I shook my head no. But the garage door was open, and there was the bike, pink streamers flowing from the handlebars, a yellow and pink striped banana seat, with a twenty-four inch sissy bar and a girl’s configuration, the center bar dropped in a curve. The cop took off his sunglasses and nudged his chin toward the bike. “I don’t know whose bike that is,” Brian added.
“Let’s just throw it in the trunk then, and I will return it to the young lady to whom it belongs. Does that sound fair?” The officer looked at the two of us. I nodded yes, my head pounding with blood, adrenaline coursing through me. And since I’d had no idea that Brian had stolen a bike I was angry.
We watched the squad car drive away. Brian slapped my hand in the air, but I was kind of disturbed. I couldn’t say anything. It wasn’t worth it. That’s why we got into trouble.
Brian had a shock of twisted golden curls growing from his pate. His nose had been broken, and he had a classical beauty, a smile wide, a chin angled and dimpled, and finely shaped ears, when you could see them. He was bigger than I was, and we had become friends when some kid punched me and Brian helped me get home while I held my shirt to my nose. We were inseparable.
I was skinny and small, which is how I later came to be the one to shimmy up the wall of Wolfe’s Sporting Goods and snip the grate off a vent and climb in. We were fourteen-year old boys there to steal skis. Within minutes of me thumping on the floor from the twelve-foot drop, police spotlights shined through the front door, and I could see growling dogs on leashes. The sound of Brian’s car (we stole his mom’s red Buick LeSabre) pulling away on the gravel made my heart sink. I knew I was done for and walked out with my hands up.
Thirty cops with their lights flashing and walkie-talkie radios blaring and scratching held their guns out as I walked out with my hands up, dogs on leashes growling at me. I was sitting in the back of a squad car with my hands cuffed behind my back when the cop from Brian’s driveway walked up.
“Stolen bike buddy, how’s the life of crime going?” he said. He got on his radio and two cars from the parking lot of Wolfe’s peeled out, presumably over to Brian’s house. They arrived as Brian pulled into his driveway.
As we were being processed at The Salt Lake Juvenile Detention Center Brian shot me a violent look. I figured he thought I’d rolled over on him. I looked away. I’d never been in jail, and I was curious. I was relieved we were in different cells. It was around three in the morning, and things were moving pretty slowly. The fluorescent lights buzzed, the burnt yellowed ends of them seeming ready to stop giving light at any moment and the variation of the power flow caused the light to vary, and with the institutional thick gray painted bars, the gray and green cell, and the guard sleeping with his hat over his eyes and his feet on the desk, it was all like a movie. A transistor radio talked about the news. A dusty electric fan rotated back and forth. The linoleum floor was weirdly streaked. And Brian was over there in the cell across the way making menacing eye contact whenever possible.
Suddenly he started screaming and banging on the floor with his socked feet, “Fuck you, fuck you,” he hollered staring me down. I just didn’t say anything; I knew I didn’t do anything wrong. He shouldn’t have stolen that bike. But I didn’t want to say that either, right?
The guard marched over and opened his cell, grabbed him by the.....Read More
Yesterday I was hungry all day, a hunger I denied satisfaction.
Today I can imagine satiety. What I want to imagine is a garden,
the garden of my future, imagine it into existence. Sunlight
flickers on the wicker basket in the hall where trembling leaves
are reflected from the kitchen window. Three orchids blossom
in the dining room. All have bloomed and kept blooming, all
are almost finished blooming. For some this is the first day of
a new year, ancient and predicted. For others, a recurring burden
to lift. In dream I read the leaves of trees as poems that a man
I’ve just met has written. His words speak to me with the coral
authority of autumn. Their accents are accounts of.....Read More